Reflections on a tour of Israel

When I decided to go to Israel on my own, I wanted to work with a travel agent who was well acquainted with the country and could match me with the right private driver/guide to take me around the country. I found Rita and Caravan-Serai Tours in Conde Nast Traveler Magazine.

I contacted Rita and told her the many places that I wanted to see in Israel and that I wanted to have a private guide with me. I needed a guide who intimately knew the area and shortcuts to get me to each of the numerous sights I wanted to visit during my week in Israel. Rita made innumerable suggestions about my proposed itinerary and answered my countless questions about planning my trip. With her vast familiarity with Israel, she was able to arrange my schedule in a way that allowed me to maximize my time in Israel.

After Rita and I finalized my itinerary, I felt confident and assured that I my trip would go smoothly in Israel. I arrived in Israel and met the guide that Rita had arranged for me. As I quickly observed, he was an encyclopedia of knowledge about Israel and very enthusiastic. He was well prepared with my itinerary, knowing exactly what I wanted to see and how to get me from place to place. He was the perfect fit for me.

We started my first day in Israel at the famed Dead Sea. No trip to Israel would be complete without the obligatory dip and float in the Dead Sea. Due to its very high saline content, you truly float – without any effort – in this Sea.

On my second day, we drove a short distance from the Dead Sea to fabled Masada – the mountain fortress overlooking the Dead Sea. We took a glorious cable car ride up to Masada and toured the ruins. My guide was wonderful at explaining the history of Masada.
From Masada, we drove to the nearby Qumran caves. The Dead Sea scrolls were discovered among the 13 caves. The view of the caves is quite stunning. The surrounding Judean desert has so many fascinating shapes and curves.

We then drove towards Jerusalem and I visited Bethlehem. Regardless of your religion, it is hard not to appreciate the passion and religious fervor as you observe the worshipers at the Church of the Nativity and the Silver Star inside that marks the birthplace of Jesus Christ. The faithful kiss the Star and bring items to be blessed by touching the Star. I then walked through Manger Square and around the corner to the Milk Grotto – where a drop of milk supposedly fell from Mary while she was nursing the baby Jesus – which turned the Grotto white.

From Bethlehem, we drove approximately 10 minutes into Jerusalem and began the first of three sightseeing days in Jerusalem.

I stayed at the landmark King David Hotel in Jerusalem. My room had a magnificent view of the walled old city of Jerusalem and the Tower of David. The King David has been the resting spot of many a dignitary and celebrity. There is even a walking hall of fame of sorts in the lobby. Queen Elizabeth is one of the few who have signed their name on the floor. The walls are filled with photographs of some of the famous who have stayed there. The King David is well-located, it’s a lovely and short walk to the heart of Jerusalem.

Of course, Jerusalem is a very important sight to three of the world’s important monotheistic religions. The Dome of the Rock is considered the third most highly sight in Islam – from where Muhammed ascended to heaven one night. Its glittering gold dome can be seen from far away and is one of the most photographed sights in Jerusalem. The Dome of the Chain with its fine tile work stands right next to the Dome of the Rock, as does the nearby Al Aqsa mosque. For Christians, walking the 14 stations of the cross along the Via Dolorosa to the sight of Jesus’ crucifixion and Jesus’ tomb inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a religious experience. Of course, the Western Wall is the holiest of sights in Judaism. It is the only standing remnant of the Second Temple. I saw all of these places.

My guide even surprised me by taking me to the Western Wall on Thursday morning, when bar mitzvahs take place there. That was quite a spectacle. There were about 50 or so separate bar mitzvah ceremonies simultaneously occurring side by side. Seeing the ceremonial dress and the torah reading and the passion of the people was quite moving.

An early visit morning to the Mount of Olives area is essential. From there, you can see the sun shining on the old part of Jerusalem. The panoramic view of the entire walled city is gorgeous and makes for good photographs too. In the Mount of Olives, I saw the Mosque of the Ascension, where Jesus’ footprint is still visible. I saw the golden onion-shaped spires of the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, visited the Dominus Flevit church, toured the Garden of Gethsemane, viewed the very large Jewish Cemetery, and paid tribute to Mary at her tomb.

Inside the walled old city of Jerusalem, we stopped at the Mount Zion area to see King David’s tomb, which is draped in a purple cloth. I also walked in the room of the Last Supper, with its gorgeous vaulting arches. No trip to Mount Zion would be complete without a visit to Oskar Schindler’s tomb, which is still covered with pebbles and small rocks from Steven Spielberg’s film.

While I had heard and read much of the “division” of the old part of Jerusalem into the Arab, Jewish, Christian, and Armenian quarters, I thoroughly enjoyed walking in all the quarters. From looking for unusual buys in the Arab souqs to watching traditionally-dressed Orthodox Jews, the entire area was in a word – fascinating.

Outside of the walled old city, I also visited Yad Vashem, a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. I also saw some of the Dead Sea scrolls and one of the jars in which some scrolls were discovered, on display at the Book of the Shrine at the Israel Museum. The Book of the Shrine is white and shaped in the form of the lid of the jar. I toured the Knesset, which is the home to the Israeli parliament; watched the Israel Supreme Court hear a case in its impressive building in which all the light comes from the outside; and saw Marc Chagall’s 12 glorious stained-glass windows at the Hadassah center and hospital.

From Jerusalem, I went to Tel Aviv for two days. The contrast from the old and traditional in Jerusalem to the new and hip in Tel Aviv was striking. Tel Aviv is lined along the Mediterranean Sea and the beach helps define the city. Jaffa is in the southern part of Tel Aviv and is a walking tribute to the past. It hold much history and is a fun place to walk through its narrow pedestrian-only walkways. Jaffa is slightly elevated and provides lovely views of Tel Aviv and the Mediterranean Sea.

From Tel Aviv, I took easy day trips to Caesarea, Akko, and Haifa. I toured the beach aqueduct and the ruins in Caesarea. The hippodrome there is a must. The ancient city of Akko was a photographer’s dream – it is filled with old structures, arches, and all sorts of interesting shapes that enhance photographs. Haifa is Israel’s third largest city. A visit to the Bahai Gardens and the Bab of the Shrine is a must. The Gardens escalate along a hill and are immaculate. I thoroughly enjoyed my walking tour of the Gardens from the top of the hill down the terraced gardens until I reached the beautiful domed Bab of the Shrine.

My week in Israel was everything that I had hoped for and more. My guide brought history to life for me and ensured that I saw everything that I wanted to see. He knew the best times of the day to visit and photograph the many sights that I saw. For this, I sincerely thank Rita and her wonderful crew at Caravan-Serai.

I look forward to future trips made possible by Rita and Caravan-Serai.

(Note: This entry was written for us by Mark Schaeffer, a client who has recently returned from his tour of Israel. Thank you Mark for your post!)

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